March 05 2021 Edition
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By the Way
We honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week. And what do we tell each other this year, as we think of him? The House voted to impeach the president this afternoon for the second time, the Senate will face the question tomorrow, and no one is surprised.

As I look ahead tonight, I remember Ross Gay telling the story of the fig tree on 9th and Christian in Philadelphia. The tree shouldn’t have been able to grow so far north, he said, but it was thick with fruit, and when he met the woman sweeping the sidewalk clear, she let him pick.

He had more than he could carry, and people gathered around him. He reached figs down for her. He handed them to people who stopped on the street. They were ripe, silk he said, velvet, sweet.

It was a spring night over at Bennington College (where they’re holding their annual writers week right now online) when I heard him read that poem aloud. It was an unexpected moment. He was walking the city street, taken up with hard thoughts, and then — here was a woman older than his mother and a seed someone planted in a place with few trees, and he was picking figs with juice and sweat on his hands. The taste of them woke him up …

“… pulling me down and
down into the
oldest countries of my
body where I ate my first fig
from the hand of a man who escaped his country
by swimming through the night …”

Figs are powerful fruit, I'm told, in the lands they're native to — and I’m thinking of the resilience and the pain in this story, and the generosity and self-sufficiency across generations. One of my interns made me realize this summer how rare it is for many people in this country today, and especially people of color, to have a garden, or a fruit tree, or land to plant a fig seed on.

Tonight I remember listening when Ross Gay spoke with me, and reading the poem for the first time in his Catalog of unabashed gratitude when it made finalist for the national book award. I loved the guts and mud and joy in his book, although I didn’t understand then even as much as I do now of the loss and anger and determination that move with them. I am still trying to learn.

Dr. King would not be surprised this week. He saw it coming in 1963. I can imagine him if he were alive today, 92 and speaking as an elder — standing firm as the events of last week and this week build momentum — recalling vivid memories of Birmingham, when he came as a peaceful protestor:

“I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together.”

This isn’t news to him. He traces the debates we’re having now and even the words we’re using, in 1963 and in 1619, and I see them repeating now, as I hear people asking why are we still here? This week I saw that our local Community Read of Souls of Black Folk had reached chapter 9, and I opened my copy to find W.E.B. DuBois talking about communication.

“… between these two worlds, despite much physical contact and daily intermingling, there is almost no community of intellectual life or point of transference where the thoughts and feelings of one … can come into direct contact and sympathy with the thoughts and feelings of the other.”

Couldn’t he be talking about social media today?

In this essay, he’s talking about the value of learning and skill and intelligence. He had fought for them in his own life. He was 35 when he wrote this passage, a professor at Atlanta University, travelling to international conferences. He had studied at Fisk University in Atlanta and become the first black man to earn a Ph.D from Harvard.

He had also taught in rural Tennessee. He had grown up working to support his mother and his family after his father left home. He sees the pressures of living with poverty and violence and the cycles they can cause.

I hear in him the passion of an intelligent man who wants ardently to stretch his mind and to be all he has in him to be. It is hard to live in a world that tells you not to think. Not to find center and balance and strength. Not to love. And he may not have been writing that essay for me, but I am thankful that it gives me a point of transference, a point of contact with his thoughts and feelings.

They move me, and my world is richer because I can walk the path at his boyhood home and think of the world he imagined. It's richer because I can talk with Toshi Reagon about her compositions to Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, and not only because her music is achingly beautiful, and not only because I feel stronger when I listen to her, but because she sees the world strongly, cleanly, clearly, and changes it for the better.

In Birmingham on that raw April day, Dr. King wrote, “… Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation.” Maybe the clearest thing I can answer this week is I hear you. — By the Way Berkshires

Stories

Acclaimed tap artist Derick K. Grant performs in The Blues Project. Photo courtesy of '62 Center

The Blues Project taps rhythm with Toshi Reagon

A low voice calls over solo guitar. A warm bass and rippling lines of dancers sound rapid beats like a light rain. A strong tenor builds over blues chords in a call-and-response rhythm ...

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Internationally acclaimed novelist, essayist, activist and scholar James Baldwin, press image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

James Baldwin writes on his own home ground

On a late summer morning, James Baldwin was waiting for the Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists to begin at the Sorbonne. ... Aimé César and Richard Wright, and M. Lasebikan of Nigeria speaking in Yoruba and English on the structure and beauty of Yoruba poetry ...

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An apple tree at sunset. Winter at the Notchview Reservation in Windsor, Massachusetts. Courtesy of the Trustees of Reservations.

I believe: A manifesto for Martin Luther King Jr. Day

A friend of mine created a workshop where people could build manifestos. A manifesto is a public declaration of intention — in other words: I have a dream. She believes anyone can have a manifesto. You just have to believe it strongly enough that you would be willing to stand up in a public place and say it out loud. ...

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Events

Dorrance Dance rehearses new work at Jacob's Pillow. Press photo courtesy of the Pillow and Dorrance Dance

Dorrance Dance at the Pillow Lab

January 14 at 7 p.m. (virtual)

Dorrance Dance, one of the nation's leading tap dance companies, virtually presents new work created this winter at Jacob's Pillow.

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Challah (bread) on the shabbat table.

Yavilah McCoy: Faith, Power, and Privilege

January 14 at 6:45 p.m.

Anti-racism activist Yavilah McCoy will speak (virtually) with the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires on Faith, Power, and Privilege.

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Images Cinema will screen the awardwinning film 'Mr. Soul!' Press photo courtesy of Images.

Mr. Soul (virtual film in Together We Rise)

Through January 16 (online)

The awardwinning film 'Mr. Soul!' tells the story of Ellis Haizlip, the enigmatic producer and host of the public television variety show 'Soul!' — an unfiltered, uncompromising celebration of Black literature, poetry, music and politics.

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Acclaimed artist and illustrator Rudy Gutierrez creates new work for the Norma Rockwell Museum in the Unity Project. Press image courtesy of the museum.

Picturing Freedom: A Century of Illustration

January 15 and 16

The Norman Rockwell Museum will hold a two-day conversation: Picturing Freedom: A Century of Illustration, with acclaimed writers, artists, and scholars including Rudy Gutierrez, who created the image shown here as part of the NRM’s Unity Project

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Winterberry show bright red against the snow outside GreylockWorks in North Adams.

Berkshire Grown winter farmers market

January 16 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Berkshire Grown will hold a winter farmers market in Great Barrington with locally grown and produced foods — from apples to meats, cheeses and honey.

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Martin Luther King Jr. gives his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963.

Martin Luther King Jr. (Day of Service

January 18 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (online)

The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, MCLA and Williams College invite the community to join in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, virtually.

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Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. Creative Commons courtesy photo.

Letter From Pittsfield: WordxWord

Janary 18 at 7:30 p.m.

WordXWord invites poets to present work in a virtual, free open evening of spoken word that reflects on, is inspired by, or otherwise connects with the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

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